When she addresses the Democratic National Convention tonight, Michelle Obama will have two goals: laying out an attractive biographical sketch of her husband and his vision for America and showing the country that she is not the strident woman her critics make her out to be.
The would-be first lady will be speaking in prime time tonight, as will House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
While Pelosi’s roles as the first woman to lead the House and head of the convention are significant, all eyes will be on Obama, who has already broken the mold as a presidential candidate’s wife.
Caricatured recently on the cover of the New Yorker magazine sporting an Afro and a machine gun, Obama has been working since the general election battle began to soften her image and avoid political hot spots.
“I think she’s definitely warmed up and toned down a little bit,” said Myra Gutin, a communications professor at New Jersey’s Rider University and author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.” “What was perhaps strident a few months ago is not strident any more.”
It’s been more than six months since Obama told a Milwaukee audience that thanks to husband’s candidacy, “for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.” But the words continue to haunt Obama and her husband’s presidential bid.
John McCain’s wife, Cindy, told audiences soon after that she had always been proud of her country, and conservatives were quick to glom on to her remarks.
Obama later said she intended to refer only to the nation’s political process, but her husband’s political opponents still have their sights fixed on the 44-year-old Princeton University and Harvard Law School graduate.
“I do think Michelle Obama will be somewhat of a factor in the general election,” veteran Republican strategist Jim Ellis said. “Her ratings have been negative. Hillary Clinton changed the model of the importance of spouses in presidential campaigns.”
Democrats have high hopes for her speech.
“She is very dedicated to him and the issues he champions and the issues that are critical to the Democratic party,” said Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia. “I think that will come through in her speech.”
Obama’s makeover began in June on “The View,” a morning talk show aimed at a female audience. Obama showcased her sense of style (a chic dress purchased at a discount store) and explained that she is, in fact, proud of her country and feeds her family bacon for breakfast, just like many other Americans.
Her campaign appearances this summer have also highlighted her softer side — fewer stump speeches and more intimate round-table discussions and talks about issues concerning children and families.
At the podium at Denver’s Pepsi Center tonight, Obama will showcase one of her best skills — talking about her husband and why he should be president. Democratic strategists agree she will have to sound passionate, but will have to shed the edginess of some of her past speeches.
“I think the Obama campaign is really focused on trying to get people to know him as a fully fleshed out person, the struggles he has endured in life,” veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine said. “That is what shared values are all about and she is going to be able to offer testimony on that that no one else can.”
Eisenhower to Obama, twice
The Eisenhower name has been associated with Republicans ever since the great general joined the Grand Old Party to seek the 1952 presidential nomination — but this week it is being subsumed under the Obama banner.
It began back in February, when Ike’s granddaughter Susan, a mover and shaker in her own right in foreign affairs and business consulting, wrote a column announcing her support for Obama. She followed Aug. 21 with a new column, for The National Interest online, announcing that she was leaving the Republican Party for good, registering as an independent — and re-emphasizing her support for Obama. She did so as the Democratic convention was being made ready in her grandmother Mamie’s hometown of Denver.
At the famous Brown Palace hotel in Denver, Room 825 served for years as the “Western White House” to President Eisenhower and first lady Mamie. The room has been known ever since as “The Eisenhower Presidential Suite.” The hotel has joined the convention spirit by dropping both the Eisenhower name and photos from the room and renaming it the “Barack Obama Suite.”
So much for anarchy
While the Democrats have been coy about the exact timing of some of the important convention speeches and events, the protesters are apparently much more organized.
They have released a “master schedule” of events that began on Saturday with a “confrontation with anti-abortionists” at a Denver Planned Parenthood and will conclude on Friday with buses available for the trip to the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn.
Some of the events include concerts by Public Enemy and “22 other influential bands,” according to the organizing group Recreate68, which hopes to replicate the spirit of civil disobedience, but not the violence, that took place during the 1968 conventions.
Protesters plan on holding a “street theater demo” on Monday morning in the fenced-off protest area next to the convention center. Protesters have dubbed the site “freedom cages.” Other activities include “Direct action against polluters and greenwashers,” which is scheduled for Wednesday, followed that evening by a “Critical mass bike ride – no war, no warming.”
The protesters also plan to march in support of legalizing marijuana and will move their protest Thursday to Invesco field, the site of presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s acceptance speech.
The Democrats are declaring the 2008 convention “The most technologically savvy event of its kind.” Not only did the party grant credentials to 120 bloggers, but they are putting the entire event up live, gavel to gavel, on the Internet in high definition streaming video at demconvention.com. The event will also be simulcast on the Internet in Spanish and there will be Web casts of “exclusive interviews and nightly convention previews.”
The Democrats have also set up demconvention.com/townhall, where anyone can submit text or video questions for “America’s Town Hall” that will be answered live from the convention floor by “elected leaders and national policy experts.”
The convention also has a partnership with YouTube that will allow convention attendees “to share their unique perspectives” by uploading photos and videos at special kiosks inside the hall at the Pepsi Center.
(all times Eastern)
5 p.m.: The convention formally gets under way with reports from the rules, credentials and platform committees.
7 p.m.: The Democrats’ high-tech, multimedia stage will get its first extensive use in telling Barack Obama’s personal story. The evening’s theme of “One Nation” will begin with the candidate’s biography.
8 p.m.: Influential Democrats will take turns explaining what their party stands for. One of the focal points will be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s remarks on a “Journey for Change.” Also laying out the Democratic message will be former President Jimmy Carter, via videotape from New Orleans, and early and influential Obama backer Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
9 p.m.: The connections between Obama and the Kennedy family will be highlighted in a lengthy video tribute to Sen. Edward Kennedy. His niece Caroline, also part of Obama’s vice presidential selection squad, will introduce the video and make brief remarks.
10 p.m.: The highlight of the evening for Democrats will come when Michelle Obama, still by her husband’s side, speaks by remote to the crowd. Her brother, Brown University men’s basketball coach Craig Robinson, will introduce her and discuss their family’s story.
Other speakers Monday night include Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., of Illinois, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana.
Aside from the extensive coverage on cable news networks, the convention is being carried by public television and C-SPAN.